Last year's MLS SuperDraft introduced the Sons of Ben to the national soccer stage. (Elizabeth Robertson/Staff file photo)
Tomorrow afternoon, just about everyone who's anyone in the American soccer community will gather in Baltimore for an event of rather little significance.
Although it receives a lot of attention, the importance of the Major League Soccer SuperDraft is diminishing rapidly - and in plain view of all of us who follow the sport in this country.
For much of MLS' existence, the draft has been a key tool for player development because of its ties to college soccer. Now the draft is being supplanted by the creation of youth soccer academies at individual clubs. That is a very good thing for the present and future of the sport in this country.
But the SuperDraft still has one very big benefit, and it is one which I think should not be overlooked. In fact, I think it should be celebrated.
The SuperDraft is an event as much as it is a function, and it is the only really major event that MLS holds during the winter. In part because of its alliance with the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention, the SuperDraft has become a gathering place for fans, media, and league and club officials to promote the sport and prepare for the coming season.
The fan aspect is of particular emphasis when the convention is held on the East Coast. Last year's draft drew hundreds of fans from across the league to Philadephia. In addition to the expected contingents from the Northeast corridor, I saw fans from Columbus, Kansas City, Colorado and even Seattle.
The vibe did not just last during the SuperDraft, either. For five full days, the Pennsylvania Conention Center was a soccer hotbed. I still remember officials from the NSCAA telling me that last year's event was the best they ever held.
It would be great if MLS could just hold an annual Fan Festival somewhere that would bring fans together in wintertime. Inviting more fans to the NSCAA convention itself would fit the bill, or perhaps creating a day at the convention dedicated to fans instead of coaches and players.
But such an event still might not create the kind of buzz that the SuperDraft currently generates. A fan festival alone would likely struggle to attract fans from across the country, especially if held on one of the coasts. It probably wouldn't attract dozens of credentialed journalists either, or get the kind of media buildup that the SuperDraft receives.
And let's not forget the hour of live TV coverage that the SuperDraft gets on ESPN2. That's certainly worth something in terms of publicity.
There is no such pomp and circumstance when an individual MLS club signs a homegrown player. The Union tried to make a big deal out of Zach Pfeffer, but there wasn't even a formal press conference. By contrast, the club's first-round draft pick will be announced on national television. There will be lots of formal pictures taken, and a gauntliet of interviews after the player's name is called.
In the long term, the growth of club-run youth academies and the Homegrown Player designation will do much more for player development in MLS than the SuperDraft. College soccer will always produce some good players, but there's no doubt that more and more top talents will go the academy route over time.
Pfeffer is but one example. Newly-minted U.S. national team forward Juan Agudelo, who came through the New York Red Bulls' academy, is another. Toronto FC and D.C. United also promoted players from their academies to their senior teams last season.
And from everything I've heard, Vancouver already has in place what may be the best academy system in MLS. Even though the Whitecaps are an expansion team, they spent years building a player development system as a second-division club. They have brought much of that structure with them to the top division.
So let's celebrate the SuperDraft for what it is, instead of what it isn't. Let's make it about having fun, in addition to the serious business of scouting and drafting and trading picks at the last possible second.
Given where Major League Soccer is heading, we might not have many more chances to do so.